05 May 2016

Things I Learned in Gun School - Advanced Competition Pistol with Op Spec Training

One of the most transformative experiences in my shooting career was taking Practical Fundamentals with Operation Specific Training. I’ve been fortunate to have been part of some really excellent classes over the years, but the lightbulbs that clicked on for me in Practical Fundamentals changed the most basic ways in which I thought about the problem of shooting a pistol well: trigger management. Other classes taught me a lot about how to address the more macro problems in practical shooting and gave me a strong grounding in the sport, but Practical Fundamentals addressed some of the micro problems that were preventing me from advancing no matter how much work I put in.

Recently, I was able to follow Practical Fundamentals up with an Advanced Competition Pistol class taught by Bruce Gray, also through Op Spec Training. Bruce and the Op Spec crew are friends and sponsors of mine, but that wasn’t what led me to take these classes. In fact, it was the other way around. In my pursuit for excellence in marksmanship, I’ve been doing my best to hang around the best and have been fortunate to become friends with many of them.

Advanced classes are always a tricky topic: what makes them "advanced"? I consider being really good at shooting as essentially being able to perform the fundamentals more consistently under more pressure. This class was “advanced”, then, in that it assumed a grasp of fundamental trigger control and instead of spending the time solidifying what great trigger management looks like in isolation, it explored the application of time, distance, and other performance pressures both from a psychological standpoint and a practical perspective.

There is a great deal of sports literature that discusses how the conscious and subconscious mind influences performances. The classic work is With Winning in Mind by Lanny Bassham, an Olympic Gold Medalist in International Rifle. I’m partial to The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey, actually recommended to me by Bruce himself. Essentially, the theory is that after a certain amount of training, a person’s subconscious mind is able to perform to a high standard, but that the intrusion of conscious thought and concern gets in the way of that performance.

Many strategies have been put forth on how to train the conscious mind or otherwise encourage it to be less interested in attempting to control physical performance. Some of them are purely cerebral in the sense of beliefs to be internalized. Some are more practical in how they direct specific physical actions or conditions to focus on. We covered both types in Advanced Competition Pistol.

On the mental “brain” game side, we spent quite a bit of time discussing concepts like faith, attention to process, and the tension between being reactive and proactive.

When I’m behind a gun at a match or otherwise ‘when it matters’, I, like many shooters, start doubting my ability to be as good as I want to be. I start literally grabbing at every little thing I think might help me be faster or more accurate and try to make sure right away that I’ve done what I needed to so that I can fix it right then if not. The results are somewhat predictable: I’m slower and less accurate as I try harder and harder.

In class, this problem was identified as a lack of faith: faith that my sight picture and alignment is acceptable, faith that my ability to press a trigger and handle a gun is sufficient…probably about the only faith I don’t completely lack is faith that my gun will perform. Naming a problem is a good start to fixing it, fortunately, and for the particular areas that I doubt the most, rounds downrange is one of best ways to internalize that I am and have enough. I got plenty of both with this class.

While I don’t generally believe that extremely high round count practice is a very productive way to spend time and ammunition, it ended up being useful for me when paired specifically with the concept of solidifying my faith in my shooting skills and some of the physical techniques that can help maintain that faith, like the ones I’ll talk about a little later. After repetitively shooting difficult drills not just successfully, but in a state of mind where I was able to identify imperfections from behind the gun, I now know much more innately that I am enough, that I have enough skill to meet my goals.

My self-images are beginning to merge now, so that what I know about how others see me, with all of my flaws and my potential, the “me” I secretly and not-so-secretly aspire to, and the imperfect but improving individual I see in the mirror are starting to look more and more alike. That’s a direct result of beginning the process of getting more directly on the path of giving my conscious mind faith in the ability of my unconscious competence.

Part of creating that bridge of faith is focusing on process. Instead of trying to directly mash together who I am and who I want to be, keying on to doing the work and really staying on that bridge, rather than looking behind or ahead, is really important. Staying engaged in process is one of the most reliable ways to keep the conscious mind busy without interfering with the subconscious. Therefore, we spent quite a bit of time in class speaking to what the process of shooting really looks like and what fundamental elements to concentrate on.

Another part is to make the shift from shooting reactively to shooting proactively. In other words, instead of acting out of fear, anxiety, or worry (about missing, or otherwise screwing up), and allowing yourself to feel tense or rushed, you take a leap off the cliff of proactivity and attack the shooting problem. It’s a little terrifying in the same way that crowdsurfing or riding a rollercoaster can be, but it’s also exhilarating, fun, even joyful to let go and allow yourself to fly and trust that you will land safely. It’s really hard, especially for us overthinking, analytical, risk-averse types. But oh, it’s so beautiful when you do.

On the more practical, physical side, we worked on visual patience and were led to what Bruce considers the universal answer: prep harder. Range exercises including the bump drill, dot drills, Bill and Triple Bill drills, transition drills, and strings of steel targets.

In Bruce’s paradigm, there are two fundamentals of pistol shooting: trigger control and sight alignment, with trigger being paramount. Other elements of technique like grip and stance are adjuncts to making it possible to perform these fundamentals more consistently and perfectly.

Good trigger control is the ability to press the trigger to the rear without disturbing the sights. Seems simple when put that way, but there is a lot that can get in the way of being able to do so successfully. As I already said, the answer is to “prep harder”, but what does that mean?

The concept of prepping a trigger is to exert ever-increasing pressure on the trigger to the pressure wall, to and through the point it breaks and the shot fires. Ideally, no more pressure is used than the minimum necessary to move through the break, and as a function of recoil after following through completely, the finger releases past the trigger’s reset point then begins to exert that pressure again with the goal of being up against the wall by the time the sights have settled. The bump drill, where the shooter ‘bumps’ against the trigger with repeated presses on the trigger that increase in weight minutely each time until the gun fires, is an important tool to learn this skill.

Prepping harder means continuing to increase pressure on the trigger at the wall, an intensely process-oriented technique that is focused on the preparation to fire the gun rather than the end goal of actually firing. The physical feeling of prepping the trigger is part of what anchors the conscious mind and busies it from distracting from subconscious performance.

For me, continuing to prep and prep and prep is what I need to do in order to avoid the most common flaw in my trigger control, which is mashing at the trigger and trying to make the gun fire as soon as I see what I perceive as a good sight picture. That particular strategy doesn’t work very well because it almost inevitably results in a trigger press that paradoxically disturbs the sights enough to send the bullet away from its intended point of impact. Instead, if I just prep harder as I see what I need to see, and have faith in the process of prepping, then my shot lands where I wanted it to go.

The question then, is how I as the shooter can know that I’ve seen what I need to see and can trust that what I’ve seen is enough – that is, how can I develop visual patience?

The first step is to consider the boundaries of what must be seen and processed in order to successfully shoot the intended target zone. How steady does the sight picture need to be? How well do the sights need to be aligned with each other and with the target?

No human can hold a gun perfectly still. There is always some degree of wobble, but with a good grip and stance, that wobble is relatively small as compared to the size of most targets, even targets we might perceive as “far” or “hard”. Instead of looking for perfection, the shooter must accept the wobble and understand that the singular micro-moment of perfection is a misconception.

Trying to “catch” that moment is a major cause of degraded trigger control. Instead, the shooter needs to have faith (there’s that word again) in the wobble and in the fact that excellent trigger control through the wobble will result in the shot landing at the point of aim. Here again, the answer to the wobble is “prep harder”.

The need to trust the wobble and the ability of the prep to result in the desired shot was illustrated in class by shooting a dot drill with a number of tiny dots shot in sequence from just a few yards away. The dots were small enough that the sights felt like they were wandering on and off them all the time. But prepping harder resulted in holes punching through the dots time after time. The principle is applicable to larger targets further away that appear the same as those tiny dots behind the sights. I didn’t find it extremely difficult to shoot the tiny dots up close, and doing so not long before shooting 30+ yard plates that looked the same helped drive home the fact that if I can shoot small groups up close (and I can!), then I can shoot anything I can see.

The extension of the wobble is the idea of how much a shooter needs to let the sights settle after firing one shot or after moving into position, before firing the next shot. The temptation for me has always been to get another really solid, stable, perfect sight picture again. But if my sights have slowed down enough to be within what I would have considered part of the wobble zone normally, then that should be enough for me to continue prepping the trigger harder and allowing the shot to fire. I don’t need to wait. Shooting Bill drills and other drills that put a lot of shots on a target were used in class to illustrate that if the sights were observed with acceptable alignment and placement, then shots can be fired as fast as the shooter can continue prepping the trigger.

I’ve known from other classes and other drills that the ideal “equal height, equal light” sight alignment is not actually necessary for close-up, wide-open targets so long as there is some definable relationship between the front sight and the rear sight notch. I’ve even known intellectually that “close-up” and “wide-open” are elastic terms with meanings that change between shooters and under different circumstances. What I’ve been struggling with is how to expand my definitions so that I become less concerned with waiting for perfect sight alignment before I fire a shot.

Similarly, I know that my P320 is mechanically capable of shooting ridiculously small groups. Even if my aim is a bit off, the gun’s ability to maintain tight groups means I have quite a bit of forgiveness to still land a shot where I need to on most targets because I can rely on the gun to not throw the shot wild. Combined with the fact that Bruce reminded us of this weekend – that our trained subconscious knows how to put the sights where they need to go on the target – I should trust my body’s ability to know when my sights are in the right place.

This spot is where I need to sidetrack into another area I've been working on for the last few months with Yong Lee: the concept of target focus. Traditionally, marksmanship is taught with a hard visual focus on the front sight of a pistol, leaving the rear sight and the target itself a blur. The theory behind target focus is that the target should be the clearest to the eye while the front and rear sights are blurs to be referenced for alignment and to confirm that the gun is correctly aimed at the target. Among other benefits, I’ve found that target focus has allowed me to accept less perfection in my sights because I’m not trying to make my front sight look perfect.

Part of learning target focus for me has included significant dry fire time practicing getting my gun and sights up to a specific spot on the target. I do so with target focus, and since I have time in dry fire, can confirm by focusing on my front sight to make sure everything is lined up like I’m used to with front sight focus. Through this conscious process, I’ve been able to train my body to put my sights in exactly the right place every time.

By applying the target focus skills I’ve been working so hard in dry fire with the live fire exercises in Advanced Competition Pistol, I was able to make the transition to believing that my subconscious had learned what I was trying to teach it. In drills requiring reloads or transitions between targets, using target focus to observe my targets and my sight-blurs, and deciding to trust my subconscious to know when the blurs were lined up, I was able to shoot lots of Alphas and make lots of hits on steel. Live fire confirms dry fire, but it’s rarely been so dramatic for me.

I return full circle now to the concept of visual patience, the idea of waiting until the sights have given us acceptable feedback before we fire the next shot. The obvious prerequisite is that the shooter has to actually watch the sights. Along with giving attention to the feel of prepping the trigger, proactive engagement in observing the sights keeps the conscious mind from interfering with the subconscious mind that knows how to perform and allows the conscious mind to feed the necessary input into the subconscious mind so that it knows what to perform. It’s important not to try to direct what is seen but rather to simply see what the eyes pick up – a subtle, but vital, distinction that underlies visual patience.

When the subconscious is satisfied with what it observes both visually and by feel, then it will perform so long as there is no interference. Learning how to feed my subconscious and let it do its thing to solve the problem of marksmanship in the midst of increasingly complicated tasks, like 18-round, multiple target drills with reloads or ever-changing small steel stages (each with targets past 30 yards), and with the pressure of other students on the line at the same time or watching you…that’s what Advanced Competition Pistol brought me.

19 March 2016

Why Women Shoot Slow - A Response

Over at Women Carry yesterday, my friend Tammy posted some theories about why women shoot slow...or at least slower than men. Women and their relative ability behind a gun is a topic I've been thinking about quite a bit as I work through my own journey to understand the craft of shooting. Many of the points Tammy brings up are correct in my experience, but I want to discuss them a bit from my perspective, which is as a competitive shooter in action shooting sports, namely USPSA.

Body mass and strength, particularly upper body strength, are undeniably an issue for most women. The ability to muscle down on recoil saves a lot of male shooters from terrible technique, such as yanking the trigger twice on a single sight picture. Generally speaking, smaller and weaker shooters (and sorry gals, as a genericized whole, we are) will pull that second shot right off even a close target but larger and stronger shooters will usually find that second shot somewhere on paper. With correct sight management technique and trigger control, taking two aimed shots is no slower and can even be faster while resulting in two hits in the A-zone or down-zero circle, but certainly much more finesse is required and the temptation to aim too hard is difficult to overcome. A two-fold problem for women getting faster then: the inability to muscle through bad technique and a greater need for a good technique that can lead to the temptation of slowing down.

As my mentor Bruce Gray reminds us, though, accuracy is not a necessary victim of speed. And I know from my own experience in learning how to more efficiently use the strength I do have and to trust in the development of superior technical skills, I can shoot very well from an accuracy perspective at splits that most any man would be happy with - down even into the sub-.20 range. As I've opened myself to truly observing as I shoot rather than trying to muscle or control my way through, I've been able to watch my sights staying within an A-zone through the entire recoil cycle from seven yards. And along with starting as an excruciatingly slow and not even all that accurate shooter, I'm still far (for now) from a top woman shooter. So it's possible for a not naturally talented, not large woman to learn how to shoot quickly and accurately with excellent recoil management. But it can take more thought and effort to get there.

What then? Are we women not pushers, not competitive enough? If so, why?

I have to admit, I find it difficult to identify the idea of not pushing and not being competitive, and most of my women friends inside and outside of shooting are the same. As a child, I went through stints of a string of sports including gymnastics, and was a classical musician for over ten years. Even when I drifted through more solitary athletic pursuits, I always chased better form, more difficult exercises. And in school, let's just say it wasn't just parental pressure that drove my course selections and grades. I was as guilty as anyone of choosing the occasional "Easy A" classes, but the A alone was never enough. Perhaps like attracts like, but I'm part of a large community of similarly high-performing women whether or not they are shooters.

In fact, I posit that some women are too competitive to enter the competition arena. Much like men who are unwilling to go to a match until they're "good enough" to not "embarrass themselves" (whatever that means to them), women also fall victim to the same fallacy. They just seem to find it harder to take the leap. When they do, I posit that they are then met with a confluence of factors that make it difficult for them to excel as shooters as opposed to as women shooters.

Women are welcomed with open arms into the competitive shooting community, which is no bad thing except when it becomes smothering. Kathy Jackson has written about The Parade of the Dancing Bears, and women can so easily become part of that parade at many ranges, as the welcoming committee is so impressed by a GIRL! Shooting a GUN! that any level of performance is praised as a job well done. I believe strongly that we rise to the level of our expectations, and if our expectations are influenced to accepting bare minimums…well, then, perhaps we as a shooting community, men and women, have created a class of shooters who believe that they’re good enough as they are. And perhaps that’s true, that how far they get is good enough and perhaps, even likely, is already better than many average gun owners. But if we’re talking about why women shoot slow, why they aren’t ‘as good as’ men, then we’ve done ourselves a disservice by not setting a higher level of expectation. Instead of “great job!” maybe the better approach is “great start!”

There’s another problem with overly warm welcomes and dancing bears: too much attention. When the entire squad and half of the one next door stops what they’re doing to watch the GIRL! Shooting a GUN! Guys, you know how you’re nervous sometimes shooting on the clock, let alone in front of an audience? Yeah, don’t make it worse by making the audience bigger and more obvious. That really doesn’t help a shooter’s development. And if they are overly accuracy-focused or overly concerned about ‘not making dumb mistakes’, a very natural result is to slow down enough to guarantee perfect hits and no missteps. That can be very slow indeed.

Too much attention manifests itself in other ways, including piles of helpful advice. Some of it is indeed important and even necessary to improvement, but some of it, forgive me, is utter crap. Even the best advice can be unclearly conveyed or poorly timed, whether because it’s during a match or because it’s not the right moment in that shooter’s development to add that particular factor to their journey. It’s also very confusing to receive hints and tips on too many issues at once, leaving a shooter trying to integrate sometimes conflicting ideas and juggle changes in multiple parts of her technique at once. Doing that while shooting also means the shooter has too much to think about, which will also slow her down while her brain runs through all of these things instead of just allowing her subconscious to drive the gun.

Another important factor that limits women shooters today is that there are few role models for new shooters to follow. Related to the expectations problem I described earlier, seeing someone who “looks like you” in a certain setting is a big part of understanding that you, yourself can belong in that setting too. While some of us are wired to be pioneers, trailblazers play an undeniable role in showing those that follow just how far they can go. We’ve seen it as a positive driver of increasing the number of women going into and staying in STEM fields and it’s one that will be key in the shooting community too. We need women making it to the higher classes, finishing higher in matches, and yes, shooting faster. The numbers of women who are doing that are growing daily and once we make a critical mass so that all women stepping onto the range are aware of those women at the top, I think we’ll see change.

There are more, but I suspect these are some of the major drivers. Some of them can't really be fixed from the outside, but I do think that there are two areas where immediate strides can be made. First, we must treat all women shooters on the range like all other shooters on the range. That goes both ways: coddling, head-patting, and giving excessive attention should be reduced, but we should also ensure that we extend kindness and courtesy to all shooters. It's okay to nicely tell a shooter, "hey, that was kinda stinky. What happened there?", but it's also okay to follow that up with "I was really impressed with how you recovered and finished the stage though...and your reloads were rockin'!"

The actual fixing part is really up to the individual shooter to best navigate their own training journey. There is some value to genderized training communities, but they should not be pursued to the exclusion of other training communities and opportunities particular when, as now, the women’s-only and women’s-led training structure simply does not yet have the capacity to produce top shooters consistently. For now, women wanting to get to the top must seek training opportunities that may leave them as the only woman in a class. As women shooters drive to the top, that will change and we’ll take over “advanced” classes on our own. And we’re getting there – we’re now beginning to see a breakthrough in top women shooters breaking through into the ranks of top shooters overall. Solving for the problem of women role models, top women who new shooters can see and think “I can be like her!” is a big step in the right direction to solve for the problem of why there aren’t more good and fast women shooters both purely as shooters and as instructors. It's not that women can't, it's that we're still working our way there as a larger group.

14 September 2015

Happiness and Satisfaction

I have been thinking some recently on how we frame our wins and losses on the range, match or otherwise. Very often, we are dismissive of or disappointed in our results, but in a way I'm not sure is productive either for ourselves or for others.
"I had a terrible match; I only [won by a little, came in top 3/5/10]."
"I was all over the place today, couldn't do better than a [some size] group at [some distance]."
"I only came in behind [someone] because I was having gun trouble."
"I [won, came in top 3/5/10] only because I got lucky."
Most all of us have been guilty of saying something along these lines, myself included. But the more I hear them, regardless of who is speaking, the more they bother me. Here's a few reasons why:

  • They do not reflect ownership of your results. We are not only our best performances, but our worst. We are responsible for our bad days, our lack of equipment maintenance, our unpolished skills. And yet, we are also responsible for our blistering-fast draws, our perfect doubles, our "hero" runs. It wasn't luck or circumstance, good or bad; it was you. 
  • They do not respect your own improvement. Do you remember the first time you tried something on the range? In your first months or years, what was your worst match finish, biggest group size, slowest draw? What was your best? And today, how did you do? Probably better in some way or another. A little faster, a little tighter, a little more comfortable. I may not be happy in the middle of the pack now, but making it there used to be my fondest dream. By focusing on the failures, we forget how much we've won. And it wrecks our self-image. 
  • They do not respect the hard work of others. Our disappointment in what is likely an objectively good result is part of what makes it difficult for others to appreciate their own work and results. Someone may have shot the best match of their life - and ended up last place 'but not by that much!', and by saying that you've never shot so horribly in your entire life, and only came in second. What hope does that leave for someone trying to work their way up the ladder, and how does that celebrate what they've accomplished? (And why should you care? Because we're human. And because we contribute to our own ability to respect ourselves by building a culture where all wins are respected.)
There is value, of course, in reflecting on and even dissecting performance that does not meet your goals. We can't improve if we think we're already 'good enough'. And most of us are competitive by nature, so the fun is in the win or in a good-natured beat-down of our friends. So I'm certainly not saying we shouldn't talk about the negative, but we can consider how we frame what we've accomplished in a way that is more productive for ourselves and for those around us. You don't have to be satisfied to be happy with what you've done.

21 May 2015

A Very Quiet Bang

My friend, Tracy Hughes, issued a dry fire challenge this month to the members of the League City A Girl & A Gun Club chapter, where she is the facilitator (among the many hats she wears!). The challenge is simple: one full month of dry fire, six days a week. She's even provided a helpful graphic with each day's prescribed exercise. 

I'm really excited by Tracy's challenge because I know how well dry fire worked for me. Almost exactly two years ago, I celebrated breaking 50% on a USPSA classifier, meaning I shot it about half as well as the best person who's ever shot it. Earlier this month, I shot a classifier that's predicted to be within hundredths of a percentage point from 80%. How did I get here? I'm not a naturally talented shooter. I don't get to the range a whole lot to practice. But I do dry fire. 

Almost all of my significant gains can be directly traced to the dry fire routine that I started nearly 18 months ago with only one significant break this past winter when I actually didn't dry fire or shoot any guns at all. I've taken classes in the past, tried dry firing on and off, but this time was different. I'd just taken a class with Ben Stoeger who, true to form, told and showed me in great detail where precisely I was lacking as a shooter. The deconstruction came with a plan: dry fire, with a really honest focus on gun-handling technique and sight picture. Less than a year later, I took the class again and was pronounced improved (a little ;) ). I still have a long way to go towards my goals, but here's a few things that have helped me get to where I am now:

I dry fire or shoot (live fire practice or match) 5-7 days a week. That includes days we go out with friends or run errands after work, days when I'm stuck in the office late, days when I want nothing more than to crawl into bed right after dinner...I take a night off if I'm sick, if dry firing means I can't get my minimum amount of sleep to function, if I'm traveling, or occasionally if I'm busy packing for a match. And with that last one, I'll probably sneak in a few minutes of trigger control work anyway. 

I've settled on 30 minutes for my dry fire sessions. A half-hour straight through is a bit longer than is often recommended, but it's a chunk of time that works for me. Occasionally, I'll add an extra 15 minutes if I want to make sure I get in some time on a second gun, but 30 minutes is about as long as I can stay on task and not overwork my body. But even 5-10 minutes would do. To keep myself focused, I set a timer and use a dedicated space. My laptop and cell phone stay out - it's just me, my gun, my session timer, and my shot timer. 

I've built a plan that I follow if I don't have something specific I want to practice. That way, I never wonder what I'll do in dry fire on a specific day. My plan includes specific exercises, including par times and other goals. I want to leave my thinking for the actual work I'm doing in my dry fire studio, not for figuring out what that work will be. The plan also forces me to do things I'm bad at or haven't thought of before, not just blow through some feel-good drills.

I track and journal my dry fire, so that I can look back and tell you what I worked on last week or last month, and what challenges I had or details I noticed that helped me hit on a new or better way to do something. My trackers and journals also create accountability because they don't lie on how much I have or haven't done, and can be used when checking in with my training buddies. Plus flipping back to old entries can be really motivating when I see how far I've come. 

I participate in the occasional dry fire "throw down", where one of my training buddies will post a video of a dry fire drill performed under par time, and challenge the rest of us to match it...on video, of course. The drills can often focus on more obscure skills or push heavily into the limits of what's physically possible. It's fun and I learn a lot about the skills in the drill, since participating often includes lengthy discussion of the specific techniques that make it possible to perform the drill as described or refine performance even further.

I push my dry fire practice until I fail, then I figure out what went wrong and fix it. While perfect practice is important, so is going hard until the wheels fall off. Dry fire, in a safe environment, is where you can find out how fast you can go, whether or not an odd technique will work for you, or if your bright idea about how to do something really is so bright. And having that safe space means I can make a skill mine even if it didn't seem so hot the first thirty times. Three hundred. Whatever. It doesn't cost me anything but time to figure it out. 

One of my mentors and coaches describes dry fire as shooting with everything but the bang. Or rather, shooting live ammo is just dry fire with a little more noise and recoil. While you can't replace every bit of the shooting experience in dry fire, you can do most of what matters. All that work you do in dry fire? That's what's behind making your shooting beautiful.

26 March 2015

Hi There - A Few Personal Updates, and Some Thoughts On Range Safety

I'm sorry for the radio silence here. While I've been able to post shorter tidbits fairly regularly over on my Facebook page (where you really should go for more timely news and posts anyway) and even my new (relatively) Instagram, the longer and more thoughtful stuff that goes here has taken a backseat to some developments in my professional life both at my day job and as a shooter.

My day job career and my shooting career have paralleled each other in many ways, having started at roughly the same time. Major shifts in the way I've approached my relationship with guns can be almost directly tied to jumps I've made between jobs and roles. In 2015, my life in both worlds has become both more visible and more demanding. I won't bore you with the details of what I do in my office, but on the range, I'm happy and proud to a member of Team SIG SAUER and Team Lucas Oil. I'll also be proudly representing, in no particular order but alphabetical, Brilliant Backstraps, Full Bore Firearms, Grayguns, King Shooters Supply (Better Bullets), and PHLster...a list that is continuing to grow with my team affiliations. I'm really fortunate to be supported by these fine people and companies, and I'm looking forward to doing my sponsors proud. Each one of them puts out products that I'm personally impressed with and would choose to use regardless of sponsorship status. 

Enough about me. 

Most shooters who haven't been living under a rock recently have seen this video, showing a gross safety violation at a USPSA match. 

Clearly, I believe that since the video showed up on the internet at all in the first place, we are better off as a community not trying to delete all traces of it. Social media just doesn't work like that, and we have an excellent opportunity for education here on many fronts. Since we're all just playing experts here on the Internet, I'll need to go back to mememe for a moment and remind you of my qualifications. In addition to being an avid competitor, I'm also a match director, an IDPA Safety Officer, and a USPSA Range Officer

Having this video out in the wild doesn't just show a huge safety violation. It also shows that we are safety conscious. Witness the almost universal reaction of competitive shooters; I think we're more outraged at what went wrong than anybody in or out of the shooting community. Do you know what would be worse than this video? Not having this video posted because nobody thought it showed anything noteworthy.  The reason it's gone viral is because it is so out of the norm, and so far away from what we consider acceptable on the range. 

Range safety is an overlapping system so that if one element fails, the others continue to protect you and those around you. That's why we talk about safe direction AND finger off the trigger: if you put your booger finger on the bang switch when you shouldn't, but you're pointed downrange, all you'll do is give a good scare. Here, there was a failure of many best practices. There isn't one person at fault, and not everybody bears a greater or lesser degree of fault. So what should have been done?
  • Stage designers and match directors should carefully consider design and construction to maximize safety. I'm not raising a call to go to mesh walls, but you might think twice about that shoot house stage, or build your walls to start a few feet off the ground so that you an RO/SO can do an extra safety check by looking underneath them. 
  • Range/Safety Officers must remain diligent about visually clearing the entire range before starting a new competitor. The common, and smart, recommendation is to designate the RO/SO as the "last (wo)man off", who will conduct a visual sweep of all areas as they move to the start position. If a stage is very complex, there should be a plan to clear people off the range: who will walk from where, along what path? Who will keep watch to make sure nobody else goes uprange as the range is being cleared? What areas can be double-checked and how, before the next shooter makes ready? 
  • Range/Safety Officers must remain aware of the entire range as much as possible while a competitor is shooting. Focusing on the gun/muzzle does not mean locking on with tunnel vision that does not take into account what is beyond/behind the muzzle. The scorekeeper can take on some of this responsibility, and you can designate a squad member if there is a shortage on staff. It's not just for shooters downrange, but anything else that might affect range equipment or safety: a prop that has blown over or activated early because of wind, an animal wandering onto the range (you laugh, but it's happened on ours!), an errant brass-picker. 
  • Other squad members should stay on the ball when taping and resetting a stage, and drag their fellow squad-mates off the range with them. We've all been squadded with "That Guy" who can't resist lagging behind a few minutes for a few extra pieces of brass as long as they're downrange. We all should be reminding him to stop holding up the match and be keeping an eye out to make sure he isn't still downrange when the rest of us are done taping. 
  • If we're watching or video recording a shooter, we need to remember that we are all responsible for safety and for keeping an eye out for the same things the folks holding the timers and score sheets are. You're watching for your buddy's foot faults anyway so you can razz him after the match, so watch for what's on the range too. 
  • Some shooters like to visually clear the range as they head towards the start position. You might consider doing that too, at least in bays with compromised sight lines. Or you can ask the RO/SO running the timer if they've checked. And you should remember that while most all of us love that win, we should be paying enough attention that if we see or hear something odd, we can and should stop ourselves. Just like a suspected squib. 
And let's remember this: nobody got hurt. It was awful close - far closer than it ever should have been - but this incident didn't result in extra holes in anything outside of a cardboard target. Instead, we've been fortunate enough that it's just a community reset, a wake-up call that our best practices exist for a reason. Not a bad thing to have in our heads as we get into the full swing of competition season. Are you ready to get started? I am!

08 October 2014

Still Alive and Kicking!

To my five readers:

I continue to dry fire religiously, and shoot tons of matches. 3-Gun and USPSA have taken over my schedule this summer and fall. Please check out my Facebook page, where I post my less rambly thoughts, and my YouTube channel, where I post match videos. Very soon, I hope to be announcing some very exciting news, and it will break first on Facebook.

See you on the range!

18 June 2014


If you're a competitive shooter who hasn't been living under a social media rock, you've probably heard at least rumor of a USPSA Range Officer who is being called out for allegedly adding to and subtracting from stage times shown on shot timers at major matches. If you're following the various Facebook discussions, you'll likely know that I've contributed my two cents. Given the many electrons that have given part of their life to the debate, I don't have any more to add on that particular scandal (at least not here), but it has made me think about integrity on the range generally.

As with any sport, there are a lot of ways to gain an unfair advantage if you're shooting for score, whether from the competitor side or the range/safety officer side. The shot timer can be manipulated by tapping it after the last shot or allowing it to pick up the slide dropping during the Unload and Show Clear, or by protecting its microphone from picking up the last shot or two. Improbable perfect doubles can be argued and granted. An inaccurate score can be written down or entered, or modified after the fact. The fact that ammunition is under the power factor floor can be hidden. In most cases, these types of advantages result from unintentional - or at least unmalicious - mistakes. 

We attempt to build safeguards against unfair advantages into our rules and best practices. Having the range/safety officer running the shooter show the timer to the scoring official helps, as does checking the shot count on the timer or the split between the last two shots. IPSC/USPSA and some of the more precision-oriented sports use scoring overlays to determine whether a shot is a double or if it touches/breaks the scoring line and thus receives the next higher point value. We often keep backup carbon copies of scores at major matches, or ask the shooter to approve what is entered into an electronic scoring system (and perhaps go so far as to audit for later changes). Chronographs are used to test competitor ammunition at major matches. 

The safeguards we've built don't always work. Ultimately, they do best in preventing the unintentional slips but they aren't very effective against concerted efforts to break the rules. That's where all of us, as match officials and competitors, need to step up. I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir here when I say, "don't be a cheater". I think we're all pretty clear on the sorts of things that are absolutely over the line, like changing scores or using "special" rounds at the chrono stage. On gray areas like whether or not a very close shot touched/broke a scoring line, we should be fair when we apply principles like making doubtful calls to the benefit of the shooter - if you would do it for your buddies, you should do it for a stranger, and vice versa. Similarly, if we think we've found a better way inside the rules, we should stay within the realm of good sportsmanship. More, we need to speak out if we see bad calls and shady behavior. I don't just mean posting (anonymously or not) on the Internet, though that's certainly been effective in the current scandal both for bringing this particular issue to light and for raising awareness of simple ways to safeguard against it, but also in raising the issue to the range master or match director, and if necessary, further up the chain to section/area coordinators and so on to hopefully nip the problem in the bud. As one of my friends describes it, failing to give a procedural to one shooter who rightfully should have received one has the net result of giving a procedural to every other shooter who followed stage procedure. Don't do that to your fellow shooters.

I'm not saying we go on witch hunts or accuse anyone who gains an advantage of "gaming" or "cheating", but turning a blind eye to bad behavior perpetuates the flat out cheating we don't want on the range. It's important to keep the game, whichever one(s) you shoot, fair so that we can compete on as level of a playing field as possible wherever and with whoever we shoot, all within the boundaries of the rules we go by. Classifications and wins derive much of their value from knowing that everyone went up against the same problem and you solved it better, whether that means you shot it faster or you saw a way to exploit a stage design. If we all truly do our best to ensure that everyone the same experience coming in, we'll all have a more enjoyable match...and we really will know who was the better shooter (or at least better at coming up with brilliant stage breakdowns or at reading the stage brief closely!). 

By the way - those of you who don't compete or who don't care about your scores? You don't get a free pass either. When's the last time you spoke up about unsafe practices you've witnessed on the range? Told someone your measured opinion about an ineffective or unsafe piece of gear? Gave an honest assessment of a person's skills? Gently warned a friend that a training opportunity they're excited about might not be a good idea? Fair isn't just for the competition range; it's also for training for competency or self-defense. 

We play with dangerous toys and that requires a high level of personal responsibility so that it remains safe, fun, and fair. Be a person that you would trust, and support integrity in those who surround you. That's beautiful.